IN: Reviews

Celebrating Relationships That Sing Themselves


Tamara Ryan, Alyssa Hensel, and Susannah Thornton in Symposium (Dan Busler photo)

The genre-bashing samplings of seven 10-minute “Opera Bites” in the Boston Opera Collaborative/Boston New Music Initiative joint bakeoff at Longy this weekend straddled opera, operetta, operella, off-Broadway, sitcom, and ensemble-accompanied art song in musical language ranging from parlor accessibility to post-lyrical. The libretti, concentrating for the most part on relationships, observed in six of seven cases, the dictates of the Aristotelian unities.

Longy’s Pickman Hall, in a pops-style configuration with 20 or so tables of eight (though unfortunately unserved by beer-toting waitrons), hosted a lively guffawing crowd of good sports for this now traditional season opener. Sixteen members of the company took on various roles in solos, duets, trios, and quartets in front of scene-defining projections. Staging included tables, chairs, benches, sofas, an antique telephone and the obligatory cell phones. Costumes were mostly vernacular. Stage directors Greg Smucker, Patricia-Maria Weinmann, and Adrienne Boris blocked enough stage business for each episode. Helpful surtitles integrated well into the projections.

Boston New Music Initiative’s flexible and committed contingent of 16, each a soloist and a chamber music partner, found and channeled the voice of each composer under assured direction from Tina Hui Ng and Nathan Lofton. We are happy to use the words community and collaboration in describing the essential sauce with which these players dished the quite disparate morsels. Complete program with wordsmiths’ names is HERE.

A brief spoof on the life of business persons, Oliver Caplan’s Symposium, to a libretto by Anna Ray, provided for a trio of identically dressed repressed ladies named April channeling shyness with automaton interchangeability of parts and personalities. These Aprils (Tamara Ryan, Alyssa Hensel, and Susannah Thornton) never pierced the drought of loneliness to any roots, even with a handsome but also repressed and quiet stranger in their sights. A folkish intro for flute, clarinet and piano began the Caplanesque melodies and alienation ballads. A 33-second pregnant pause allowed the audience chortle and rustle to modify the silence a la Cage.  

The jazzy affability of syncopated marimba, glock and piano infused the string-rich score with sounds that Mabel, the deaf wife of Alexander Graham Bell (non-speaking, non-singing role) could not hear. Somewhat surprisingly, Carrie Magin provided outpourings of Erwartung-like monodrama for the scene-chewing mezzo Rebecca Krouner in the most conventionally operatic exhibit of the show. Voice on a Wire’s story violates the unities by extending over a 30-year-span, but perhaps in doing so, it whets our appetites for an extension of a compelling story.

Eva Kendrick, in one of three world premieres on the agenda, transports an iconic encounter on a park bench from the New York angst of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story to a Parisian romantic nostalgia in Wish You Were Here. The pheromone-aligned couple, as portrayed by Carley DeFranco and Scott Ballantine, made as much as they could of the cute conceit. “It may have been nice sharing a lifetime with you in a love that might have been,… but I need to catch my plane.” The music served the story with generous helpings of pleasantness.

Francis Rogers and Sirgourney Tanner in Triangle (Dan Busler photo)

The park bench metamorphosed into a sofa in the world premiere of Triangle. The lit-major-harridan from Jane Martin’s play of the same name, is one of the scariest predators on the lyric stage. Toni Soltiro gave the band the wherewithal to star as spiky, smashing, blasting, and athletic supporters. Celeste Godin realized the character Joyce with an overendowment of relentless carping that aroused no potency in the couch potato Art (Francis Rogers). Whenever Art begins to sing, Joyce keeps interrupting him as Strauss does to the Italian tenor in Rosenkavalier. Then the apartment door opened for the entrance of the divine Aphrodite. The clarinet announced a metamorphosis to lyricism from the band, as the goddess, played by the stage-wise Sirgourney Tanner becomes the dominatrix of Art’s dreams. Joyce, one of the great pouters, shrieks high C’s of jealous agony as she loses her man to the goddess who will “Fuck his brains out.” Did he have one?

Rapture could have been ripped from the bodice of a Flannery O’Connor novel. The scene of an ineffectual but manipulative mother awaiting rapture concludes predictably when the world does not end at the appointed time. The 20-something daughter, skeptical after having witnessed so many of the mother’s previous enthusiasms, concludes at the end that she is probably a loser as well. Over a heartbeat drone, David Wolfson, somehow invents a jug band with an atonal bent that accompanies Stephanie Hollenberg’s dramatically inflected Halleluiahs and paeans to the God she is “going home to” as inevitably as an electric guitar and accordion can summon Nashville. His chromatic uncertainly felt surprisingly apt and affecting for both rapture and loss of illusion. In the final aria of resignation, the strikingly Leslie Caronish Jenny Searles Margulies as the seen-it-all-before daughter finally got her throat cleared and emerged from the maternal cloud with a bright ping.

Since the average age in the ambulatory audience appeared safely under very, very old, we could accept Lucy, a cautionary tale of a superannuated matriarch accommodating herself to her halfzeimer fantasies, without becoming overly self-referential. Tom Cipullo exploited this artful premise in a piano-accompanied score that shifted between Debussian and silent movie sensibilities. This second-in-a-row crazy mother act allowed Shannon Grace to lament with attractive levity, relieved by the engaging smile and honeyed tones of Junhan Choi as the imaginary visitor who didn’t want to leave.

Composer Beth Ratay midwifed the evening’s third debuting youngster in A Womb with a View. Appropriately, the fetus in its final stages of development was BOC’s own director of development, Natalie Logan, a high-breach-position coloratura in a pink onesie. Supervisors and assistants got her through her pre-flight checkup only to discover that she had two appendices and not a single soul. Pinging woodblocks, various charming twitters, and keening orchestral contractions characterized the in-utero chaos. Some heavy pizzes heralded the arrival of the soul.

Gorged as we were at the end of the evening, our table could not agree on whether we had really witnessed seven operas. We were nevertheless of a single accord that we had witnessed a memorable night of music theater.

Next up for the collaborative, Laura Kaminsky’s As One, a chamber opera for two voices and string quartet to a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed at Longy on January 25th-28th.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Stephanie Hollenberg and  Jenny Searls Margulies in Rapture (Dan Busler photo)

Snippets on the composers:

Award-winning American composer Oliver Caplan writes melodies that nourish our souls, offering a voice of hope in an uncertain world. Inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit and beauty of the natural world, his music celebrates stories of social justice, conservation and community.

With music of luminous vocal resonance, percussive intensity, and shimmering instrumentation, internationally-performed composer Carrie Magin traverses a wide emotional range with her fresh and universal voice. This “wonderful emerging composer” (conductor Brett Scott) has accepted honors including a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship, a Strategic Opportunity Stipend from the NYFA, and a position as Composer-in-Residence with Chamber Music Campania in Italy. Carrie Magin is currently Assistant Professor of Composition and Theory at Houghton College in upstate NY.

Eva Kendrick is a versatile, award-winning composer and vocalist. She writes in many genres including opera, chamber music, song cycles, and film music. She is the Chair of the Music Theory & Composition Department and on the Voice Faculty at the Community Music Center of Boston; Adjunct Faculty in Voice at Dean College; Music Director of First Parish Medfield; Director of the Eva Kendrick Voice Studio and a freelance composer. 

Tony Solitro is a composer of concert and stage music that combines rich lyricism, visceral rhythmic energy, and a varied harmonic palette. His passion for literature and drama has led him to write several song cycles, chamber pieces for voice and mixed ensemble, choral settings, incidental music for theatrical productions, and works for the operatic stage.

David Wolfson is a composer, music director, arranger, pianist and copyist whose output has included music for dance and transdisciplinary performance and incidental music for plays; opera, musicals, children’s musicals and comedy songs; song cycles, chamber music and music for orchestra; and one memorable score for an amusement park big-headed costumed character show.The New York Times has called his work “musically inventive” and “theatrically forceful.”

Tom Cipullo’s vocal writing is angular and declamatory at times, but he has a keen sense of when to let that modernist approach melt into glowing melody, and he has an even keener ear for orchestral color. He is a founding member of the Friends & Enemies of New Music, an organization that has presented more than 80 concerts featuring the music of over 200 different American composers.

Boston New Music artistic director and composer Beth Ratay is interested in the music of Harrison Birtwistle as well as text setting, poetic interpretation and the relationship of language to music, especially in Czech, German and English. She has studied with composers David Evan Jones, Paul Nauert, James DeMars, and Michael Theodore.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Opera bites, eh? Well, that’s movement in the right direction. I always wished opera would bite more and ruminate less.

    Comment by Vance Koven — November 12, 2017 at 8:55 pm

  2. Agree with the reviews; a dead heat between “wish You Were Here”, “Triangle”, “Lucy”–with “A Womb with a View” nipping at their heels. No tedious music in the lot of them. I wish I had gone to the two previous seasons of Opera Bites. I’m doing next year’s–and getting there early for discussions. Maybe some spicy snack food for next year?

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — November 12, 2017 at 10:12 pm

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